Coups and even more reported coup plots are typically murky affairs with one group suggesting someone is planning a real coup, a second that the regime itself is behind the reports in order to justify further repression, and still a third saying a foreign power is involved to overthrow the regime or remind that regime how much it needs that foreign power.
All three versions are now on offer in the case of some developments in Belarus, and there are likely to be more such offerings in the coming days especially because the reports of a coup plot in Minsk have surfaced at exactly the same time that Vladimir Putin has unexpectedly replaced his ambassador to Belarus.
It is entirely possible that the real story will never be known – or at least never be accepted by everyone given all the equities involved. But it is worth tracing what is known so far to provide something of a baseline for assessing what may be said later or for analyzing what is going on in Belarus more generally.
A week ago, Belarusian and Russian media report, Andrey Vtyurin, the deputy head of Belarus’ Security Council, was arrested by the Belarusian KGB on suspicion of taking bribes. He has been close to Lukashenka for a long time, having been head of the Belarusian president’s personal guard between 2007 and 2014.
Vtyurin’s arrest was not announced by the authorities but instead reported to the media by his friends. That has led to speculation that his arrest was related to the exposure of a conspiracy at the top of the Belarusian military and security services to topple Lukashenka or at least prevent him from being reelected.
According to some versions of the story, the plotters were connected with Moscow; according to others, they were acting on behalf of one of Lukashenka’s own children; and according to still others, the whole plot was dreamed up by Lukashenka to justify a further crackdown. (On this, see the Trykatazh Telegram channel report.)
Vladimir Putin’s replacement of ambassadors in Minsk has only deepened the mystery, given that Russian outlets who supported Mikhail Babich’s activist approach in Minsk are now working overtime to deny any Russian involvement, dismiss the possibilities of a domestic coup, and promote the version that Lukashenka came up with the idea for his own reasons.
Yury Baranchik of the Rex news agency is one of their number. He argues that there is no one near the top of the Belarusian security services capable of organizing a coup, that Lukashenka’s children can’t do so either because no one would recognize them, and that most likely Lukashenka dreamed the whole thing up.
In his words, “the version about an attempted coup is an effort by official Minsk on the basis of nothing to seriously tighten the screws on the domestic political space given the serious deterioration of the social-economic situation in the country. Lukashenka needed an occasion and he found one.”
Needless to say, Baranchik, a big supporter of Babich, doesn’t consider the possibility that Moscow might be involved. But that possibility can’t be dismissed. If in fact Lukashenka found evidence that the Russian embassy was behind this plot or associated with it in any way, that could explain why Putin moved Babich so quickly after protecting him so long.
If the Belarusian president could reasonably threaten Putin with exposure of a Russian-orchestrated plot against him, Putin might have sacked Babich so as to deflect blame onto his ambassador and thus suggest to Lukashenka that Moscow was his protector, not his enemy and keep hope alive for a rapprochement between Moscow and Minsk.
Again, none of this is known or perhaps can ever be known. But decisions are taken and policies advanced not on the basis of what is true but on the basis of what leaders and their advisors believe. With these multiple versions floating around, the situations in both Moscow and Minsk and in their relations with each other are likely to become even more unpredictable.
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